Access for all: Becoming an inclusive campus
- May. 2, 2012
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Lauren Wismer sits in the front row of her biology class in Budig 120. She is in the center section in the seat on the far left. Though she faces forward, she does not see the professor. Instead, she is watching her sign language translator sign the lecture to her.
Wismer, a junior from Kansas City, Kan., was diagnosed as hard of hearing at age two. She said the hearing loss was caused by medication given to her as an infant to treat ear infections. Her doctors do not know why her hearing is progressively declining.
Before last year, Wismer still heard fairly well, but then her hearing dropped off. She began having to use an FM-transmitter and CART, a closed captioning system for classes. Her professors would wear a small microphone that would transmit the sound directly to her hearing aids while she reads a transcript of what was being said on CART as it is typed by someone in the lecture.
This is the first semester she read sign language in classes. She was encouraged to learn sign language while she was studying at the University of Illinois because she was struggling in classes. She was a member of the diving team and dived there for two years until she broke her back.
“Since I’ve started using sign language I have done a lot better,” Wismer said. “I wish I had started signing sooner.”
Lauren said part of her success as a student is due to the technologies and services provided by the University.
The University of Kansas began a campus-wide review of accessibility issues in 2010. The review was led by Fred Rodriguez, the Vice Provost for Diversity and Equity, and Ola Faucher, the Director of Human Resources and Equal Opportunity Department.
Rodriguez said all members of the campus community were invited, including the AbleHawks and Allies, the campus advocacy group for students with disabilities.
Elizabeth Boresow, a senior from Kansas City, Kan., is an Ablehawk. She was diagnosed with autism in elementary school.
“It is a disability that affects communication, social skills, a lot of sensory stuff,” Boresow said.
When the accessibility review was released, Boresow was not happy because she felt AbleHawk’s names were included in the review and they did not participate. In an email she sent to the Kansan in November, Boresow said,
“It is the opinion of AbleHawks and Allies that it would have been more beneficial for them to take the time to do the report correctly and involve the right people instead of just speeding through everything to get it done. The report is complete and published, there is nothing we can do to “fix” the fact that we had no chance to be involved in the evaluative process. This is unfortunate because students provide a unique perspective on accessibility issues that staff alone cannot necessarily see or infer.”
AbleHawks members Preston Brown, George Li, [Carmen Thomas and Cynthia Marta sat down for a group interview with the Kansan in February to express concerns over the misuse of their names last semester. The members said Rodriguez thought they had been contacted.
According the group, Rodriguez said he would look into the matter, but their names had not yet been removed from the review. Because the University was searching for a full time ADA coordinator to oversee all compliance issues with the American's with Disabilities Act at the University. [They said they believed the Provost office had been too busy to address the issue.
Rodriguez said students were involved but probably did not attend all of the task force meetings. He said he felt the relationship between the University and AbleHawks had been repaired and acknowledged Boresow's concerns. Rodriguez said he and the new director of Accessibility & ADA Education, Jamie Simpson, would discuss their concerns in upcoming meetings.
"I think they are making a lot of progress," Boresow said about the hiring.
Simpson began work in March. Over the summer she plans to create a Twitter account to represent the Disability Services office. She said it will be the best way to notify students about up-to-the-minute accessibly issues on campus.
Simpson wants to be able to communicate with the students and faculty directly about issues such as elevators being out or fire alarms, so that they may plan accordingly. Simpson said both the Twitter account and the website will be active by the fall semester.
Simpson said such notifications are key for students like George Li, a sophomore from Kansas City., Kan., who travels campus in an electric wheelchair because of the progression of his muscular dystrophy.
People with muscular dystrophy are missing the protein necessary to hold muscles together, and its absence is what causes the muscles to slowly break down, Li explained.
Li’s case is rare. He said he is more mobile than most people with muscular dystrophy at his age.
“I can still move my arms, I can easily do my wheelchair transfers on my own,” Li said. “I aim to keep as independent as possible until it is necessary for me to get help.”
Currently, Li lives in Lewis hall by himself and gets around campus using a power wheelchair. The decision to use a wheelchair was his own. Li said when he decided to attend KU the number of hills and the strain they would put on his body made the decision easy.
The University offers several accommodations for students and faculty in wheelchairs. The JayLift Paratransit service is complimentary to students with mobility-related conditions. Students must give the University documentation of their disability to become eligible for the service.
According to the KU on Wheel’s website, JayLift rides must be scheduled. The service will provide rides to students from their home to anywhere inside the city limits between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. on days classes are in session. On days when classes aren’t in session, students may schedule rides that originate within 3/4 mile of campus. That is approximately the distance between campus and Meadowbrook Apartments.
Li said he prefers to not rely on the service to get around because he is able to drive his wheelchair safely around campus. He is also able to drive onto the handicap equipped KU buses when he needs to travel longer distances.
For students who also use wheelchairs like Li, an open line of communication between themselves and the Disability Services office is key. Cracks in the sidewalks and damaged curb ramps can damage the chair and keep Li from getting to class.
“I’ve been advocating for fixing some sidewalks,” Li said.
The University makes its best efforts to repair damaged sidewalks as quickly as possible, especially when students like Li notify Disability Services about not being able to reach classes. But some repairs are just too large of a project to complete during the school year.
One such project is a signage project known as the Hawk Route, and their purpose is to direct students in wheel chairs to the best routes to get up hills and around stairs on campus. It is a $40,000 project. Rodriguez said the money is coming from the University alone with no help from the state or federal levels.
Jim Modig, the Design and Construction Management campus administrator said the signs will direct campus visitors to the easiest way to enter buildings in wheelchairs. For example, the signs would direct people to go to the back of Strong Hall where they would find an elevator to reach their desired floor. He said many students are not aware of this route.
Because campus buildings were constructed during different decades with different accessibility requirements, the University has had to be creative when coming up with solutions to assist students in need.
Just days after school ends this week, construction will begin to convert Strong Hall room 30 into a designated testing room. A quiet testing room is one of the most common accommodations given to students. Rodriguez said in the fall semester 700 requests for testing accommodations were made through the Academic Achievement & Access Center. For each request, the center must find a quiet room and a proctor for the exam.
The new testing room will be the first designated room on campus for students who need accommodations. Rodriguez said the room will make scheduling exams simpler for everyone involved. The renovations will be completed in time for classes in the fall.
The ADA review also found that the University is not providing enough technological support to students with disabilities. Students like Preston Brown, a sophomore from Wichita, who has limited vision, and Wismer, rely heavily on available technologies to stay on track and independent in classes.
Brown was diagnosed as a child with retinitis pigmentosa or RP. It causes him to have tunnel vision with added night blindness. He said he has almost zero peripheral vision. When Brown was 14, he was diagnosed with an astigmatism, which causes the optics in his eyes to have trouble focusing. It also causes his eyes to twitch up and down.
Brown never learned to read braille. He said his teachers continually tried to teach him braille, but his rebellious spirit would come out and he would say no.
“They would always pull me out of P.E. or recess or another subject, so then I would have more homework and that would make me bitter,” Brown said.
He said modern technology makes it so he does not have to know how to read braille to do anything.
Brown uses his laptop for just about everything. It reads everything on the screen and what he types. He also has a scanner that will scan papers into the computer for it to read to him.
The University also allows him to bring a handheld recorder to classes. He is also given extra time in a room to himself for tests because he is given a reader and scribe for tests because he cannot clearly see the test.
Wismer is in a similar situation. Because her progressive hearing loss has become much worse in the two years, she has had to make more of a major transition in and outside of the classroom.
The Children’s Miracle Network provided her first pair of hearing aids two years ago on her 20th birthday.
She went to Wichita to visit an audiologist to be fitted for her hearing aids. Her cousin, a sign language translator accompanied her.
The first words she heard were her cousin saying, “Lauren, can you hear me?”
The audiologist put the hearing aids on her in a quiet room, but said they needed to go outside to make sure she was not frightened by the sounds from the world around her. This is when Wismer heard her flip-flops for the first time.
“I was just confused,” Wismer said. “I was looking around, trying to figure out what it was, where it was coming from.”
Lauren said her first pair of hearing aids only amplified the sounds, but now she needs a new pair because her hearing loss has become too great for her current pair. This time around she is working with her insurance company to be fitted with a pair that will change high frequency sounds to lower frequencies that she can hear more easily.
The technology does not come cheap, but it helps her keep up in the classroom with the help of her University provided sign language translator and two note takers.
“My teacher’s don’t know that I speak, or at least I don’t think they do,” Wismer said.
Both Wismer and Brown said they are able to remain independent because of the technologies available to them at the University. However, both agreed the availability could be more consistent.
The University is still looking for the right person to hire to oversee the technologies involved with ADA accessibility. Rodriguez said the campus facilities could and should be better. But, he said to do so the University must find the finances to hire an individual to focus on making sure those technologies are available across campus and not limited to a specific library or classroom.
The ADA review committee recently met and discussed the campus animals in buildings policy. The committee found that “owner-accompanied assistance dogs, either certified by the agency that trained the dog or individually trained to perform specific services for an individual with a disability” are permitted.
Both Wismer and Brown have service dogs.
Last week, Wismer was introduced to her first service dog, Apollo. His job is to help keep Wismer safe from things she cannot hear. Wismer cannot hear the electric busses on campus because they are too quiet.
She also may not hear the fire alarm going off at night if she does not have hear hearing aids in. Apollo is trained to jump on her bed and wake her up and make sure that she leaves the building when the alarm goes off.
Brown has been with his Seeing Eye dog, O’Riley for the past three years. They share a rebellious spirit.
“Sometimes he’ll groan,” Brown said. “Usually when I think the material is boring, too.”
Looking to the future
Brown, Wismer, Boresow and Li all understand making a campus like KU accessible is a slow process. Rodriguez agrees.
He said that Boresow is an example of how the Disability Services office is a key advocate and resource for students with disabilities.”
She came to the University because of the music therapy program. She said the transition from high school to college took time.
“My dad and I would practice the drive and walking around campus,” Boresow said.
She said she also visited friends who were a year older and lived in Lewis so she could practice being away from home and being around more people.
Though many people told her living in a dorm would be a bad choice for her because she does not like being around large groups of people, she has lived in Lewis for four years now.
“You’ve got a small community in your floor with people to check in on and make sure you’re doing OK,” Boresow said.
Boresow can best manage her autism with a lot of practice with things that can be expected. She has extremely sensitive hearing and when a loud unexpected sound like a fire alarm happens, she is debilitated for the day.
But other loud sounds like those she experienced playing in the marching band she can handle because she knows they are coming. She also wears earplugs while she plays.
“It was cool to play those songs that you’ve always heard,” Boresow said.
The University excuses Boresow from classes on days when there is a fire alarm or drill. When construction was done on Murphy Hall, the fire alarm was constantly set off. Boresow’s music classes are all in Murphy. She would begin the day then the alarm would be set off and she would miss the rest of her classes.
She spoke with her disability coordinator who arranged for the fire marshal to examine the alarms and remedy the situation.
The University granted her a course substitution so she could take an exercise science class rather than anatomy. She said it is just how her brain works. She cannot remember as many pictures and memorize them as you need to in anatomy.
Boresow was also offered a note taker and extended time on tests, but she did not see that as a way to help her progress in her independence.
“In real life, you’re not going to have someone next to you taking notes while you’re working with someone,” Boresow said.
Independence is important to her. She does not rely on someone to get her to class, but she said other people can be very helpful.
“I think independence is more about setting up a system that you can function in not that its only you in the system,” Boresow said.
The ADA review was aimed at helping students remain independent by identifying their individual needs. In the fall, much of the oversight that was done in Disability Services will transition to Jamie Simpson’s office. She will then contact the correct University groups to remedy any problems that students have.
Rodriguez said the additions and modifications will end up benefitting the entire campus community, not just the disabled. The construction projects and hirings are expensive, and in a limited government budget, the process is moving slow. However, Rodriguez and the AbleHawks are optimistic about the future of accessibility at the University.
“There are a lot of areas on this campus that pose a lot of unique and significant challenges, but I think we are moving in the right direction that we want to go to be a truly inclusive campus,” Rodriguez said.
Edited by Jennifer DiDonato